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Body Found at Home of Suspect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bodies of the women were found along deserted roads, most of them, or in an old gravel pit. But officials were stunned Monday when suspected serial killer Robert Yates Jr.--once a decorated Army helicopter pilot--led them to a grave site outside the back door of his split-level home.

“It was a surprise to us,” Spokane County sheriff’s spokesman David Reagan said. “It seemed unlikely to us that a suspect would bring a victim to his home, where his wife and five children resided.”

Investigators worked throughout the day to unearth a body believed to be one of nearly a dozen prostitutes and drug users allegedly killed by Yates--who is accused of trolling Spokane’s seamy east side commercial strip in a white Corvette and an old black van.

Police from as far as Germany, where Yates was briefly stationed, and from several jurisdictions in the United States and Canada are attempting to determine whether the 48-year-old military retiree could be linked to other unsolved prostitute murders.

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In addition to the nine murders he is charged with in Spokane, Yates also has been charged in the deaths of two women slain near Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., where he occasionally reported for National Guard duty.

Yates told investigators about the body buried in his yard as part of a tentative plea agreement, Spokane County prosecutor Steve Tucker said. In exchange for being spared the death penalty, Yates will enter a guilty plea and agree to a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, Tucker said. He added that the agreement would not be finalized until the body is identified.

“The whole plea agreement depends on it being a specific body,” Tucker said.

Yates’ lawyer, Richard Fasy, said his client had expressed a desire to “do the right thing” and help in the investigation. “He feels very remorseful for what he has done. And I don’t want to kid you: He wants to live, and we want to help him. We feel the death penalty is wrong, and it would be wrong in this case.”

Fasy said that with the disclosure of the body’s location, “the family members of that victim will have some type of closure, and that person will be allowed a decent burial.”

Yates reportedly also has confessed to five Washington state murders previously not linked to him and plans to enter guilty pleas in those cases. Authorities would not confirm the reports until the plea agreement is finalized.

Reagan said that before Monday morning, police had no idea there was a body buried in the backyard of the modest stucco home in Spokane’s middle-class South Hill neighborhood--even though they had painstakingly searched the property for more than a month after Yates’ arrest in April.

Investigators had never thought to look for bodies because it seemed so unlikely that he would have buried one so near his family, Reagan said.

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He said police got a call from Yates’ defense team and the county prosecutor’s office. “They said, ‘Follow us,’ ” Reagan said. “Mr. Yates had provided them with information regarding a burial site of what we believe is our one remaining victim. So our detectives followed them up here to the Yates residence, and we are currently in the process of recovering a body from the yard.”

Reagan said he would not release the name of the victim until there had been a positive identification, expected sometime today. He said police have telephoned Yates’ wife of 23 years, who has not returned to the home since her husband’s arrest, “basically to warn them what they’d be seeing on the news.”

Yates’ wife and his five children--who range in age from 11 to 25--were said to be caught off guard by the revelations.

None has spoken publicly since his arrest, except to release a family statement in which they described Yates as “a loving, caring, sensitive son; a fun-loving and giving brother; an understanding, generous and dedicated father who enjoys playing ball, fishing and camping with his kids.” The family said Yates “is the type of person you would want to have as your best friend.”

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Spokane’s red light district was in a state of fear for more than two years in 1997 and 1998 as a multi-agency task force pored over more than 6,000 tips in the killings of at least 19 women--some dating to 1990--all of whom were linked to drugs and prostitution.

Yates, who moved to Spokane after retiring from the Army and taking a job as a crane operator at a Kaiser Aluminum smelter, had been stopped by police with a prostitute in his Corvette in November 1998. Two days later, his 19-year-old daughter showed up at the police station, complaining that her father constantly hit her.

During questioning in September 1999 as a “person of interest” in the killings, Yates sweated profusely and refused to give a blood sample for a DNA comparison, investigators said.

Still, it wasn’t until police tracked down the white Corvette that Yates sold in 1998--finding it to contain bloodstains and a button from one of the victims’ clothing--that an arrest could be made. In the ensuing weeks, they put together an exhaustive physical case, matching Yates’ semen to that found on eight of the victims.

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Several prostitutes who work Spokane’s East Sprague Avenue said they remembered Yates. But none recalled any attempted violence on his part--until Christine Smith, 32, recognized Yates as the man who attacked her in August 1998.

She said Yates had invited her into his black van and paid her $40 for oral sex. Smith asked him: “Are you the psycho killer?” No, he replied. He “had five kids and would not do that,” court affidavits reported.

About five minutes later, she was still engaged in the act when she felt a sharp blow on the side of her head. As she fell back, reeling and bleeding, Yates demanded his money back and said, “What are we doing here, Christine?”

She escaped through the front door of the van, and much later discovered she had bullet fragments in her head. Yates has been charged with attempted murder in that case.

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Whatever plea agreement is reached in Spokane will have no bearing on the two murder charges pending in Tacoma, Pierce County Prosecutor John Ladenburg said. He said prosecutors will seek to have Yates arraigned soon and will then make a determination on whether to seek the death penalty.

That decision would not be negotiable before trial, Ladenburg said. “My policy has always been not to plea bargain with the death penalty,” he said.


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